“We are in a race, all of us here — a race against time,” Stevie Wonder addressed the crowd as he began his concert following Sunday’s Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas. A blissful party of dancing and singing was to come — “a celebration of life, love and the spirit of music,” as he put it later, leading into fan favorites “My Cherie Amour” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
But Wonder signaled at the outset that he’d also be going deeper during a nearly two-hour performance. “I’ve never seen the color of my skin, nor the color of your skin,” he said. And although he quickly added, “Not to get political, because I don’t like to do that,” he finished by issuing a challenge: “It is time for the leader of this nation, the leaders in the varied political positions that they hold, the people, we as artists — all of us come together as a united people of these United States of America.”
Then the music began, and it was joy to behold. From the one-two opening punch of “Master Blaster” and “Higher Ground,” to 1980s gems such as “Do I Do” and “Overjoyed,” to a late-set smash-after-smash barrage that included “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” Wonder and his 13-piece ensemble made sticking around after the race well worth it.
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Up front, those who paid for close-to-the-stage proximity stood on the race track itself and got the full blast of the band. Behind them, a small tier of reserved seats and boxes held a few hundred more fans, with a buffer zone between them and the main infield space that held most of the crowd. If the masses were a long way from the action, the upside was a great sound system that kept Wonder’s voice front-and-center while keeping the often complex big-band arrangements sharp and crisp throughout. And the weather was perfect: clear blue skies and low humidity accompanied temperatures that dipped below 70 as the sun went down midway through the show.
Wonder worked in some nice surprises along the way. He turned a lovely rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” into a clinic in three-part harmony, assigning complementary parts to different factions in the crowd and consequently making an age-old song sound fresh and new again. Near the end of his late-’60s hit “For Once in My Life,” he gave a shoutout to jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie, noting that Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of his birth.
It was the ending of the show that will resonate the longest, though. Teasingly asking the crowd, “Are y’all ready to go home,” after about an hour and a half and getting the inevitable “No!” in response, Wonder began a fascinating finale. After playing “Ribbon in the Sky,” one of his most elegant piano ballads, he segued briefly into the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful” before landing on John Lennon’s “Imagine.” When Wonder sang “You may say that I’m a dreamer,” the crowd answered him: “But I’m not the only one.”
Switching to harmonica, Wonder wound the song’s ending across a free-jazz bridge that suddenly turned into “The Star Spangled Banner.” On a Sunday in which many National Football League players continued their symbolic protests to raise awareness about racial injustice, Wonder’s instrumental version of the anthem on harmonica was spectacular, and as he brought it home, he sank to his knees, clearly indicating solidarity with protestors.
Stevie Wonder kneeling as he plays the National Anthem on harmonica. pic.twitter.com/1AAqHfGJq5
— Peter Blackstock (@Blackstock360) October 23, 2017
“In the home of the United States, or the united people of America, not some but all,” he said as the song finished, “feel me, Mr. President.”
All that was left was one last glorious funk jam on “Superstition,” drawn out past 10 minutes so that Wonder could introduce and sincerely thank all of his band members. Standing up to join his four backup singers for a final wave to the audience, he reveled in the moment, dancing with them as the band played on until finally it was time to go. David Bowie’s “Changes” and “Suffragette City” filled the P.A. as well-chosen exit music, and as we wended our way through the race track maze toward the parking lots, I overheard one concertgoer say, “That may be the best show I’ve ever seen.”